Apr 27

In the past few weeks, we’ve finished or started finishing up a few long-running topics that, unless a new story breaks, we’re done writing about including: debunking Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy and our work on Lone Survivor and American Sniper. (We’re figuring out where we’re placing a final outside piece of writing on this topic and then we’ll have a few last posts on the topic.)

That leaves us room to expand on some of our other favorite bailiwicks. We’ve decided to devote this week to our favorite topic, (the raison d’etre for this blog if you will):

The world is getting safer! And better!

To this end, we’re devoting the next two weeks to this topic (and a number of other posts as well later this month). We’re going to provide two On V updates to “The End of War”, again filling in this “debate” with all the statistical evidence. (With graphs!) Then, we’re going try to explain why, in Michael C’s opinion, liberalism in foreign policy continues to make the world a safer place, but still doesn’t get any credit.

Unlike our recently discarded topics, we’re going to keep writing about the world getting safer, even once we finish this series.

But, why? Why keep harping-on/retreading/re-discussing this topic?

First, the vast majority of people still don’t know this fact.

In terms of the gap between what people believe versus reality, I would argue that "the world is getting safer" tops the list. Anecdotally, I have to explain it to people all the time.

And this isn’t an issue for just uneducated people. Jad Abumrad co-created Radiolab, one of the most popular radio programs/podcasts on science. Yet, he had a crossover episode with On The Media on nihilism, arguing that present day nihilism is a reflection on the sorry state of the world today. He didn’t realize that the media (which he liberally quoted in that piece) emphasizes statistically rare events.

More importantly, he's even interviewed On V fav John Horgan before, which turned us onto this entire topic!

Second, even if you learn this fact, many people don’t want to believe it.

People, it seems, just want to think the world is a terrible place. I recently researched and read the various rebuttals to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature--I’m open-minded, so I wanted to see if I was missing something--and the counter-arguments some thinkers make to rebut Pinker are down right silly. And illogical.

For example, if you debunk Pinker’s the-world-is-getting-safer thesis by citing one example of violence in the world, that’s an anecdotal fallacy. But people also misuse statistics, move the goal posts, or “debunk” one part of Pinker’s thesis but ignore others. Why would otherwise intelligent people deny this reality? They don’t want to believe it, a response more emotional than rational.

Third, we keep finding more evidence.

We keep finding and collecting links on how the world is getting better. Over the next two days, we’ve got two “On V Updates to Old Ideas” sharing links about how the world is getting safer (and better, in general). In some ways, these links prove the case in the simplest, most definitive way possible. (Just look at the graphs!)

Fourth, we need to cover this because most pundits/journalists/media sites don’t.

To paraphrase Steven Pinker, newspapers and websites don’t run news stories on all the countries that aren’t at war. Not unexpectedly, after the GermanWings airliner crashed, it took over the news, but all the car accidents around the U.S. didn’t. Even the coverage on the nuclear deal with Iran focused more on a possible war than the actual deal.

Fifth, we want to focus on good news.

For a website named On Violence, we don’t want to only write about what’s gone disastrously wrong. (Like the people in the previous paragraph.) Yes, we hate drone strikes (coming soon), possible wars with Iran, NSA snooping, police violence, innocent people on death row, overcrowded prisons and so on. So we have a blog to write about these things.

We shouldn’t lose focus: good news comes out all the time. It’s just not sexy.

Besides harping on the statistical rarity of terrorism--you, an American, are more likely to win the lottery than die (or suffer injuries) from a terror attack--our other favorite bit of optimism comes from the decreasing risk of war. Yes, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan have simmering civil wars. Yes, Israel and Palestine have not come to any agreement. Russia still controls Crimea. And yes, Iraq is in a civil war. But the pace of interstate wars is at historic lows. So are internal civil wars. And the rate keeps going down. (One could also argue that if the developed world/rapidly developing world focused more on peacekeeping and preventing dictatorships, this could go down even faster.)

Sixth, this affects our nation’s willingness to go to war.

Many neo-conservatives, and especially those in the military establishment, believe the world is a “dangerous place” and use this argument to go to war. Or expand funding to fight terrorism. The world is, comparatively, not a dangerous place. It weakens that particular argument.

Counter-intuitively, the things that have made the world safer, at times, make us more likely to go to war. Why does ISIS inspire the world’s rage? Not because they’ve killed thousands of Iraqis, but because they’ve executed a handful of Americans. At this point, the deaths of a few can inspire the world to war.

Seventh, by figuring out why the world is getting safer, we can actually help it become even safer.

Really isn’t that why we do this in the first place?

Mar 19

(We still have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

So this is it. Our (probably) last post on the sheepdog analogy, at least in the foreseeable future.

Obviously we had some space limitations in our Slate piece “The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech” We didn’t have room to debunk more of the analogy, without losing focus. So, since we have our own blog, here are some final thoughts:

This is a very troubling analogy...for libertarians and small government conservatives.

Just think, what is the job of a sheepdog?

No, not the fictional sheepdog on this shirt, but a real sheepdog. I’m not a farmer (no surprise), but my sister-in-law once took her border collies to a sheep ranch where they train the sheepdogs. The video she brought back is below.

Notice what you don’t see: wolves. Notice what you do see: a sheepdog herding sheep. Yep, it’s just sheep and an untrained (but instinctual) sheepdog. The sheepdog doesn’t give a damn about wolves. Nope, all it cares about is telling the sheep what to do. That’s right, the sheep want to go left, go right, stop in place, go too fast. The sheepdog says, ‘Nope, you go where my master wants you to go.”

And that my friends, is the ultimate, unintended irony of libertarians (or small government conservatives) embracing the sheep, sheepdog and wolves analogy. They praise the idea of sheepdogs as protectors of freedom, while also worrying that President Obama wants to take their guns and steal their freedom. But presidents don’t steal freedom; sheepdogs do. Police forces and armies steal freedom, not social workers.

The sheepdog, far from being a symbol of liberty, should be the symbol of oppression. Sheepdogs herd the people, telling them what they can or can’t do. They represent fascism, not liberty.

We love unintended ironies.

Structural solutions versus human solutions

This is my (Michael C’s) second least favorite part of the Grossman essay.

“They [parents] can accept the fact that fires can happen, which is why they want fire extinguishers, fire sprinklers, fire alarms and fire exits throughout their kids’ schools. But many of them are outraged at the idea of putting an armed police officer in their kid’s school. Our children are dozens of times more likely to be killed, and thousands of times more likely to be seriously injured, by school violence than by school fires, but the sheep’s only response to the possibility of violence is denial. The idea of someone coming to kill or harm their children is just too hard, so they choose the path of denial.”

Grossman is utterly incorrect in his analysis of the situation above. Yes, fires have plummeted in schools, but firefighters aren’t the reason why. Fires have declined across America largely because, as a society, we realized that firemen are a terribly ineffective way to deal with fires. Instead, overhead sprinkler systems douse fires before they spread out of control. Improved construction techniques and improved electrical systems reduce the chances of fires starting in the first place. Same with regulations (yes regulations) banning space heaters or flammable furniture and clothes. In short, America created structural changes to prevent fires in schools. If we hadn’t changed the structures fires occurred in, no amount of firefighters would have helped.

Are there structural changes we could make to prevent school shootings? Absolutely: remove the means of mass murder from society. The above historical analogy about fires versus violence in schools indicates that we need structural changes to prevent school shootings, not more “good guys with guns”.

Occasionally, the entire essay is a “quote behaving badly”.

As long time readers know, we hate “Quotes Behaving Badly”. In our minds, it’s exhibit one of how bad information spreads on the internet.

Quite entertainingly, we can dissect how a quote behaving badly gets birthed. In this case, Grossman quoted Bennett to open his article, people quote Grossman’s essay, but give credit to Bennett. Here are some examples.


Mar 18

(We still have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

We had a ton of material that didn’t make the Slate piece, and that’s the luxury of having your own blog: we can post it here. But we’re almost finished debunking this analogy, after one last post tomorrow.

Today, we’re criticizing the analogy through its own internal logic. Even assuming society can be neatly divided into three different groups, problems arise. For example...

Wolves believe they’re sheepdogs.

To put this another way--again, using the logic of the analogy that these categories exist--there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature: wolves don’t know they’re wolves. As the old axiom goes, a good villain believes he’s the hero in his own movie. (Every terrorist is a freedom fighter, too.)

If you believe otherwise, you fundamentally misunderstand the enemy you’re fighting. ISIS doesn’t consider themselves wolves. They believe America and the West are wolves. If we don’t know why they’re fighting, we’ll never be able to address the underlying concerns of the movement. And we won’t be able to stop it.

How come wolves can’t become sheep?

Grossman writes that sheepdog-ness is not innate, but a choice. How come that choice doesn’t apply to the wolves? Grossman spends a lot of time convincing sheep to become sheepdogs (i.e. arm themselves) but almost no time writing about rehabilitating the wolves instead of killing them.

Using a simple analogy to paint the world in good versus evil terms does little to solve global problems, and probably more to promote them.

The sheep don’t fear the sheepdog.

One of the many things Grossman gets wrong is the sheep’s fear of the sheepdog. In Grossman’s worldview, the sheep fear the sheepdog because he has sharp teeth. They don’t understand him and wish the sheepdog could de-fang himself.

But as James Fallows wrote last month, “This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money.”

In short, soldiers don’t suffer from a lack of praise from the sheep. As we’ve written about before, since the Vietnam war, Americans can’t praise the soldiers enough. Ironically, American Sniper’s box office returns prove it.

To go a step further on the above point, this analogy is just one more way soldiers, veterans and gung-ho supporters of the military bash their critics. If you criticize the military, prepare to get yelled at. And one of the moral justifications is that critics of the military are just sheep who want to de-fang the sheepdog.

Mar 09

(We still have a ton of thoughts on Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

If you want to know how silly the entire “sheep, sheepdog and wolves” analogy is, just read the following paragraph [emphasis mine].

“The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.”

As Michael C wrote last Thursday, Grossman and his followers very condescendingly refer to the “sheep” as “naive”. As Grossman writes, “We know that the sheep live in denial; that is what makes them sheep. They do not want to believe that there is evil in the world.”

But you could easily reverse that sentiment to apply to Grossman: “We know that the sheepdogs live in denial. They do not want to believe that there is evil in themselves.” In other words, does Grossman really believe that law enforcement and the military don’t protect their own? He doesn’t write “should be punished and removed”. He wrote “will be punished and removed”.

Really? Bad sheepdogs are always punished?

Both parts of Grossman’s assertion are wrong. First, sheepdogs--either law enforcement or military--regularly harm the sheep. I mean, we wrote the Slate article because of the number of unjustified police shootings that occurred last year. To be fair, they occur every year; the country finally noticed it last year. It doesn’t help that the federal government doesn’t keep a database for police shootings.

Second, and maybe more important, law enforcement and the military have a long history of not policing themselves. Even if you think Michael Brown’s death was justified, Eric Garner was killed using an choke hold that violated NYPD policies. And no one was held responsible. According to a report by the NYPD Inspector General, police officers are rarely punished for such chokeholds.

Banned chokeholds are just one example. Police misconduct then denials or cover-ups are a historical part of policing. Some examples…

1. The police officers who beat Rodney King wrote fraudulent reports that he had resisted arrest. Video evidence proved them wrong...and they still weren’t convicted. (At one point, a judge told prosecutors that "You can trust me.")

2. A recent New Yorker article provides another example of a police department that refused to evict multiple wolves. In Albuquerque, New Mexico the police department has a shockingly high number of fatal shootings. But they always circle the wagons to defend these wolves in their midsts, usually by slandering the victims:

Grover, the former sergeant, said that when officers shot someone the department typically ordered a “red file” on the deceased. “The special-investigations division did a complete background on the person and came up with any intelligence to identify that, you know, twenty years ago, maybe, the person got tagged for shoplifting,” he said. “Then they gave the red file to the chief.”

Instead of investigating the police, they investigated the victims, smearing their character. That’s actually the exact opposite of what Grossman believes happens. (Unless the entire Albuquerque police department has been taken over by “wolves”.)

3. While we were writing and editing this post, This American Life did an episode on the relationship between police and African-Americans. A quote from that episode, after describing an incident where Milwaukee police officers (off-duty and on-duty police officers) beat and tortured someone:

“Eventually, seven officers were fired. Three were sentenced to over fifteen years in prison. But before that, officers closed ranks. No one talked. No one knew anything. It showed the city how cops would turn the other way and protect their own, even if they saw something truly terrible.”

Think about it this way. No one has to define what “protecting their own” means. Everyone knows that concept.

4. Part two of the This American Life episode on law enforcement opened with another example of police misconduct--Miami City police officers arrested one person over 60 times for trespassing...at his job--and ended with the not-shocking revelation that multiple police officers who harassed this man were still working. (As a side benefit, this episode also covered the material in our original piece about implicit bias in the decision-making of police officers, and actually made it sound worse than what we originally wrote.)

5. Or take some of the most defenseless lambs: the wives of police officers. It turns out that police (sheepdogs) have higher rates of domestic violence than the general population (the sheep). Are those police “punished and removed” as Grossman naively believes? Nope. Turns out that police officers are protected by their precincts. (Check out the great work by The Atlantic, The New York Times and FrontLine/ProPublica.)

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list, just a few examples I found following the news recently reading about this topic.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be starting a series on why I (Eric C) don’t trust the military or national security establishment, pointing out examples of the military deceiving the public for their own self-interest. In short, I couldn’t write an entire four or five post series like that if there weren’t dozens of examples for me to find.

Because I’m not naive.

Mar 05

(We have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

Many conservatives were introduced to Colonel Grossman’s essay, “On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs” through a chain email circulated on the conservative email-o-sphere. Allegedly addressed to the President of the University of Washington student body, a retired Lt. General Dula who (Again, allegedly. We can’t confirm the details.) wrote this email:

“Miss Edwards, I read of your ‘student activity’ regarding the proposed memorial to Col Greg Boyington, USMC and a Medal of Honor winner. I suspect you will receive a bellyful of angry e-mails from conservative folks like me. You may be too young to appreciate fully the sacrifices of generations of servicemen and servicewomen on whose shoulders you and your fellow students stand. I forgive you for the untutored ways of youth and your naïveté. It may be that you are, simply, a sheep. There’s no dishonor in being a sheep--as long as you know and accept what you are.”

“Please take a couple of minutes to read the following. And be grateful for the thousands--millions--of American sheepdogs who permit you the freedom to express even bad ideas.”

He then inserts Grossman’s sheep dog essay wholesale.

This email is insulting.

First, Grossman and Dula insult “sheep”, calling them all variety of names. Together they label sheep variously “naive”, “untutored”, ungrateful, unable to survive adversity, and (most insultingly for me) “living in denial”. As Grossman writes:

We know that the sheep live in denial; that is what makes them sheep. They do not want to believe that there is evil in the world.”

This leads into the second insult: Dula and Grossman don’t realize they’re insulting people. Dula and Grossman both write, “There’s no dishonor in being a sheep.” Grossman says, “I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep.” Paraphrasing Grossman and the above email, basically say, “Hey, you’re a sheep and I don’t mean that insultingly. You’re a naive, ungrateful coward who lives in denial if you don’t support gun rights, but no offense. Seriously, no offense.”

So the essay allows people to insult their opponents, but claim they aren’t. Two insults in one.

But the real question behind the insults is: who is really living in denial?

All the evidence in foreign policy says that Americans live not just in the safest times in American history, but the safest times in the history of the world. That’s right. We just fought the safest two wars in American history. You are more likely to win the lottery than die of terrorism in the U.S. And the crime rate has plummeted. If you think evil is expanding its reach in the world, you’re living in denial.

And all the evidence says guns kill people. The myth that good guys with guns kill bad guys with guns is just that, a myth. The presence of firearms increases the odds of their use in their own homes, but that’s what the data says. Oh, and guns are most often used in suicides. Again, that’s what the evidence says.   

So, in summation, people who don’t carry guns are not “untutored” nor “naive”. The so-called sheep aren’t living in denial. To say otherwise is insulting.

Feb 12

(We have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

On Monday, we addressed two of the criticisms of our Slate piece, (“The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”). Today, we want to tackle some more of the rebuttals.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with race!”

Far and away, people--even people who liked the article--objected to us connecting the sheep, sheepdogs and wolves analogy to race more than any other objection. Some felt the connection was not related to the core article, or Chris Kyle.

There’s a number of rebuttals we could issue in response. First, as we wrote in the article, many (most?) Americans use race, consciously or subconsciously. In particular, many police officers use race in their decision making. (By now, most people have seen the Harvard Implicit Bias test. If not, check it out.) The sheepdog analogy, by its very nature, divides people into categories. And most people in America divide their fellow Americans into categories...using race.

Ironically, many of the people objecting to the accusation of racism had an odd response: being racist. For example…

“But black people are wolves!”

I wanted to make this point in the original article, but Michael C made me leave it out. Follow this simple logic train (which we don’t agree with):

- The world is divided into three groups, sheep, sheepdogs and wolves.

- Wolves commit crimes.

- African-Americans commit crimes more than any other group.

- Therefore, African-Americans are more likely to be wolves. (Again we don’t agree with this at all.)

Think that’s crazy? I do too, but I just wanted to follow the crazy logic of the sheepdog analogy to its logical conclusion. If this analogy is true (it’s not), African Americans are more likely to be wolves. Turns out, some commenters are already leapt to that conclusion, citing crime statistics and saying, “See, African Americans are wolves!”

And people say the gun rights debate doesn’t have anything to do with race. But let’s get more specific...

“Michael Brown was a wolf!”

Many commenters on Twitter and in the comments section objected to us using Michael Brown as an example.

From Twitter: “at the same time, the pieces author mourns a violent criminal like Michael Brown (can't speak to Garner), so…”

From the comments section: “BTW, Mike Brown was a wolf, as shown on the security video in which he assaulted and robbed a much smaller man.” and “Mike Brown was a wolf killed by a sheepdog.”

Or in more racially-loaded terms, Michael Brown was a “thug”. (Yes, someone wrote that.) And less sensitively, some commenters wrote that he deserved to get shot.

This is really where I get upset. In essence, they’re arguing that petty larceny is a crime deserving a death sentence. Yes, I mourn the death of any young man who gets shot, because I don’t see the failing as his, but a society that couldn’t help him. Especially when an overzealous law enforcement community and its supporters see shooting him as a justified action for robbing a liquor store.


“Evil exists!”

That’s the gist of this article refuting us. On one hand we can’t refute this. There are definitely horrific, vile acts in the world it is hard to call anything but evil. But, as we wrote in our Slate article and many times since, the number of horrific, vile acts in the world is decreasing. Evil isn’t spreading in the world, it’s receding.

But going from “evil acts” to “evil people” is a different ball game and it begs way more questions than it answers. Does one act forever make someone evil?  What about soldiers or police officers who beat their children or cheat on their wives? Are they evil? What about the torturers?  What about drone strikes of weddings in Yemen? Does that make the operators in Langley sheepdogs or wolves? What about politicians making bad decisions about wars that kill innocents? Are they sheep or sheepdogs? Evil or justified?

Evil is too simplistic a term to judge people with, unfortunately. And so is the “sheep, wolves and sheepdog” analogy.

Feb 09

(We have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, check out the posts below:

- On V in Other Places: Slate's "The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”

- Race, Evil, and Black Wolves: Answering the Critics Part 2

- The Most Insulting Part of the Sheepdog Analogy

- Now Who's Being Naive? When Sheepdogs Kill Sheep

- The Internal Inconsistency of Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves Analogy

- Some Closing Thoughts on Wolves, Sheep and Sheepdogs Analogy)

Our Slate piece from two weeks ago (“The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”), got a lot of responses. And by a lot of responses, we mean approximately 1,300 comments. (An On V record!) Like any good comments section, most of the responses were insane. But we thought we’d debunk a few of the most common rebuttals to our article.

Today, we tackle the responses that attacked our research.

“Grossman didn’t invent the analogy!”

Unfortunately, this was the most popular response about our article, challenging the idea that Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman invented the analogy.

First, we had people pointing out any analogy with a wolf, a sheep or a sheepdog in it and claiming, “See! Someone else said it first!” Most of these analogies only had two of the three animals, which wouldn’t make it quite the same. In particular, a reader filed a correction with Slate, saying it came from The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth. So I found the analogy in the book, forwarded it to Slate, and we all agreed: the analogy in that book was actually the opposite of Grossman’s analogy. (That specific analogy claimed that every member of every military in the world was a wolf preying on the innocent.)

This also happened with Plato and few other analogies. In short, people have been crafting analogies about sheep for years (like the Bible); this analogy is very specific and different.

Closer to the point, a sociology professor pointed out that Grossman may have first used the actual analogy in On Killing. He also pointed out that another sociologist in the 1990s used the same analogy to criticize the media’s perception of police. Based on the follow-up research we’ve done, this seems accurate.

But it’s all besides the point.

Despite the headline “The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech”, we weren’t writing a history of the analogy. We were debunking it. Oh, and we even wrote in the article that Grossman said he heard it from an old vet.

Anyway, who first crafted the analogy doesn’t matter. Grossman popularized the analogy. Grossman did more than any other person to make this analogy a cornerstone of the conservative, gun rights movement, by writing articles and giving hundreds of talks around the country. Grossman may not have invented the analogy, but he made it famous.

“You’re taking these quotes out of context!”

A lot of people objected to how we used quotes from both Chris Kyle and Lt. Col. Grossman, saying we took the quotes out of context. You can probably say this about anyone quoting anything anytime. Since you can’t (and wouldn’t) quote entire texts, someone can always claim that the next sentence, paragraph or chapter clarifies a quote that makes someone look bad. (*cough* Clausewitz *cough*)

That’s not the case with the quotes we used.

On Chris Kyle, he’s an extremist. In his book American Sniper, he hates like few people have the power to hate. More importantly to the critics of what we wrote, I re-read the passage we quoted in the article. Nothing before or after it contradicts what he said.

Some people claim that Kyle only referred to the bad guys as “savages”, not all Iraqis just the people he was fighting. And yes, at one point in the book Kyle makes that distinction. Of course, in the first chapter alone, he uses “savages” without making that distinction. And here are some more quotes about Iraqis from American Sniper:

“I never once fought for the Iraqis. I couldn’t give a flying f*** about them.”

“I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.”

So yeah, our quotes stand.

Did we take Grossman out of context? Some people complained that Grossman didn’t view his groupings as definite. To be fair, Grossman does make that point [emphasis mine]:

“This business of being a sheep or a sheepdog is not a yes-no dichotomy. It is not an all-or-nothing, either-or choice. It is a matter of degrees, a continuum. On one end is an abject, head-in-the-grass sheep and on the other end is the ultimate warrior. Few people exist completely on one end or the other. Most of us live somewhere in between.”

And this point…

“In nature the sheep, real sheep, are born as sheep. Sheepdogs are born that way, and so are wolves. They didn’t have a choice. But you are not a critter. As a human being, you can be whatever you want to be. It is a conscious, moral decision.”

But then he contradicts himself later:

“If you are a warrior who is legally authorized to carry a weapon and you step outside without that weapon, then you become a sheep, pretending that the bad man will not come today. No one can be “on” 24/7 for a lifetime. Everyone needs down time. But if you are authorized to carry a weapon, and you walk outside without it, just take a deep breath, and say this to yourself... “Baa.”

Sounds like an all-or-nothing choice. And in his earlier work, On Killing, he classified the emphatic psychopath as the ultimate warrior, dividing humans into groups based on genetics. So yeah, it’s pretty much a dichotomy.

Of course, Grossman doesn’t write anything about wolves becoming sheep or sheepdogs, but we’ll discuss that in a future post.

Nov 03

A few years ago, I wrote in an “On V Update to Old Ideas” that Eric C and I fall into the “optimist-idealist” camp when it comes to the future of war. Not only do we think war is decreasing over time, we think someday humans will be able to end all war. That makes us optimists.

But it feels strange to describe ourselves as “idealists”. Certainly a view of humanity as fundamentally good is idealistic. But is that inherently unrealistic? We didn’t come to that idea in a vacuum. Rather we found it in in academic research by Stephen Pinker, Joshua Goldstein, John Horgan, Bruno Tertais, Micah Zenko, Michael Cohen and John Mueller, who all wrote that--despite the constant war coverage in the media--the world is actually more peaceful and less violent than at any time in its history. The forces making it less violent and more peaceful, they also tend to argue, will likely continue in the foreseeable future. In essence, our optimistic views aren’t idealistic at all, but founded in a realistic view of contemporary events.

Yet, ironically, some international relations realists stand in front of this academic train yelling, “Halt.” For instance, Frank Hoffman writing on the realist website War on the Rocks, “Plato was Dead Wrong: Embracing Our Better Angels”.

When it comes to debating war, the “realists” like Frank Hoffman may as well be the idealists. Instead of using facts, data or anything empirical, they rely on ideals...an idealism based in a pessimism. To show this, I am going to go through Hoffman’s 2,500 word article and show the (lack of) evidence he uses to support his worldview that the world isn’t getting less violent:

- A misattributed quote. That’s right, the central uniting theme of his article is a “quote” from Plato, an incorrectly attributed quote that, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” As we’ve written before, Plato didn’t say this; the unknown George Santayana did. Unfortunately for Hoffman, he googled the phrase to link to it. GoodReads.com doesn’t count as a reputable academic resource. If he had scrolled down, he might have stumbled across our article on “Quotes Behaving Badly.

- No academic citations or footnotes. Yep, after linking to Stephen Pinker, Bruno Tertais, Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen, Hoffman doesn’t link to a single academic article that argues that war is increasing in frequency. He doesn’t link to them because they don’t exist. Instead, he simply argues that globalization makes interstate war more likely, but can’t provide the data to support this.

- No charts or graphs. As a student of history and business, I know better than most that line graphs can be easily manipulated to prove anything. Hoffman, though, doesn’t even bother because he doesn’t even have the basic data on his side. No amount of chart manipulation will make it seem as if the world is on the verge of cataclysmic war.

- Elevating current news stories to data points. The key to arguing against optimists who say the world is less violent is doubling down on what one sociologist has called, “mean world syndrome”. Because the constant news cycle emphasizes violent and particularly heinous crimes, it makes the world seem more violent and chaotic than it really is. Hoffman absolutely embraces this strategy in his second paragraph:

“Ignore the front page of today’s paper. The civil war in Syria doesn’t exist and Damascus is a vacation hot spot. Egypt embraced Jeffersonian democracy while you slept. North Korea’s leadership has offered Disneyland and Starbucks unlimited access to the Hermit Kingdom...the Mullahs in Tehran have renounced clerical rule, asked for forgiveness for storming our embassy, and given us permanent basing rights on their coast.”

And Hoffman wrote this before Russia invaded Ukraine. (The article is from last year.) He takes four data points and says, “See the world is more violent than ever.” Hoffman, like most realists who insist the world is more dangerous than ever, do so by selecting certain current data points and ignoring the rest, all the countries not engaging in wars.

- An anecdote. Hoffman then tells a story how British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, Norman Angell and Ivan Bloch all predicted peace and were proven wrong by World War I. He, of course, doesn’t mention the countless people who predicted a nuclear war in the 1950s, only to be proven wrong. The point is, the accuracy of past predictions isn’t evidence either way.

- Appeals to pessimistic beliefs about human nature. To cap off his argument, Hoffman, like most pessimists/realists, relies on the foundational belief that humans are naturally violent and self-interested:

“...human nature and history have not changed.  Better yet, go back and glance at Plato, Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz.  They all recognized that the “better angels of our nature” was mere gossamer.  A realistic appreciation of the human condition, one founded on a few millennia of frequently brutish and violent human history, will always serve as a reminder of the folly of illusory and Utopian thinking.”

For a website founded on realism that allegedly prefers personal experience to ideology as a starting point, Hoffman seems to start with Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz--again, his Plato quotation is completely inaccurate and contrary to much of Plato’s writings--and goes from there. Worse, as John Horgan completely demolished in The End of War, there is hardly any scientific evidence--either genetic, historical, anthropological or cultural--that human nature is fundamentally evil.

Unlike the times of Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz, we now have rigorous social science that can test hypotheses. And the hypothesis that human nature is fundamentally evil has failed.

So there you have it: quotes, single data points, anecdotes, and an over-riding pessimistic belief a la Hobbes that mankind is nasty, brutish and violent. Data is the enemy of the realists, so that doesn’t make them very realistic, does it?